22 April 2009

Rage of reason

Cosmos Magazine
Richard Dawkins is a towering figure in evolution who skewers creationists for sport. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, but was kind enough to talk to Robin McKie.
Richard Dawkins

Spreading the word: Dawkins, looking youthful for his 67 years, is pictured with a copy of his book The God Delusion. Credit: AFP

Richard Dawkins is sitting on a cheap, beige sofa waiting for his make-up. Dressed – with typical elegance – in a grey suit, blue shirt and a tie covered with images of eagles, gorillas and other wildlife, the scourge of creationism is preparing for his appearance on Richard & Judy, a daytime TV chat show in which husband-and-wife team Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan interview some of Britain’s more intriguing celebrities.

Tonight, model Jodie Marsh is scheduled to defend girls who have ‘boob jobs’, while sports journalist Des Lynam will reminisce about his career as a TV commentator. In between, Dawkins is set to inform viewers about the intricacies of evolutionary theory.

It’s an odd TV line-up to say the least – though Dawkins seems unperturbed about the company he’s keeping. This precisely spoken, uncompromising academic will do anything to promote the cause of Darwinism, after all. Indeed, he would probably try to sell it at a rap competition given half a chance.

On this occasion, however, his brief is precise. He is promoting his latest three-part TV series on evolution – The Genius of Charles Darwin – which has just been shown in Britain and is scheduled for screening around the world, including in Australia and New Zealand, to celebrate the forthcoming 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

It’s a busy time for Dawkins, who is now 67 (though he could easily pass for a man in his early 50s). Hence our dressing-room meeting: an opportunity for a quiet, uninterrupted interview during a hectic schedule.

“I wanted to do more than just describe how Darwin came to natural selection, but to explore what it means to people today,” he says. “The theory was, and remains, the most powerful, revolutionary idea ever put forward by an individual.”

The end result is typical Dawkins: an eloquent presentation of how Darwin developed his theory; an uncompromising description of its operation in the wild; and a few barbed anti-religious jibes for good measure.

We see lions hunting down zebras and polar bears slaughtering seals, he says. The weak are killed off, leaving only animals best suited to their environment to pass on their genes to future generations. Slowly these genes accumulate until a new species emerges. This is natural selection – though it is scarcely a pleasant business.

“The total amount of suffering in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation,” Dawkins insists. “For most animals, reality is a business of struggle, suffering and sudden death.”

Nevertheless, this is how species appear and die out, a process that drives evolution not just on Earth but throughout the galaxy, Dawkins argues.

“I would put my shirt on betting that if there is life anywhere else in the universe – and it may be weird, weird, weird – that it will be Darwinian in origin,” he says.

It’s an intriguing argument. But couldn’t life evolve in non-Darwinian ways on other planets, I ask? For instance, couldn’t creatures on another world change in ways so that characteristics acquired during their lifetimes – powerful muscles, long necks, or thick skins – would be passed on directly to future generations, thus driving evolution?

After all, the inheritance of acquired characteristics was an idea (originally outlined in the early 19th century by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck but later disproved as an influence on life on Earth) that Darwin thought, briefly, might have had some impact on evolution here.

But Dawkins is emphatic: “The idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics is too crude to produce detailed adaptations like the eye or the human brain.”

The key point about natural selection, he argues, is that if there is a change in the wiring of a creature’s nerves, or in its biochemistry, or its anatomy, and this alteration produces an improvement in its survival, then that change will be passed on automatically.

But most characteristics acquired by a creature during its lifetime are actually harmful – broken bones, lost limbs – and if these were passed on, as Lamarck argued, species would be wiped out almost as soon as they got started. “That is why I am sure natural selection is not confined to this planet. It is a universal, cosmic force,” adds Dawkins.

The Oxford biologist was 35 when he emerged as a champion of evolution with the publication, in 1976, of his book The Selfish Gene. “Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence,” runs its opening sentence, one of the great scientific introductions of all time.

In the book, Dawkins rips up the idea of evolution as it was then understood and substitutes his own vision of natural selection. Animals and plants do not use genes to self-replicate, he argues. It’s the other way around: creatures are built by genes to make more genes.

“We are robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,” he states. Thus the egg not only comes before the chicken, it runs the animal’s entire life. The book, and its central tenet that evolution is gene-driven, remains his proudest achievement.

After The Selfish Gene, Dawkins went on to write a number of exquisitely argued books that expanded this thesis: The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, and The Ancestor’s Tale.

Each extemporises on the theme that natural selection, operating at the level of the gene, is quite sufficient to account for the wonderful array of wildlife that inhabits our planet, from bacteria to whales and from plankton to the giant redwood trees of California.

An understanding of the rich detail of life on Earth and its evolution is Darwin’s gift to humanity, Dawkins insists. Natural selection is simply the greatest idea ever to occur to a human mind – hence his anger at churches, governments, education authorities and families who hide this great truth from young people.

“Most children in Britain – and in most Western countries – get a few hours of education about natural selection. Against that, many of them have to go through an entire childhood’s religious indoctrination. It is scarcely surprising that 40 per cent of people in most Western countries say they still think that God created men and women and that Earth is only 6,000 years old.”

And here, one feels, lies the paradox about Richard Dawkins. For a committed atheist, he can also be fervently evangelical about the causes he believes in and sometimes seems as driven as a preacher who wants to pass on The Word.

It is an analogy that goes down badly, needless to say. The difference between science – where every statement has to be tested and proved – and religion, where basic tenets go unchallenged, is too vast to justify such comparisons, he says.

Nevertheless, there is no disguising the chilly exasperation he exudes when confronted by the godly, whose extreme adherents, the creationists, he has described as “pig-ignorant and thick”. Such remarks infuriate believers and have earned Dawkins a fearsome reputation for arrogance.

The accusation is unfair, however. He is certainly uncompromising, but not wilfully rude or overbearing. He is generally polite, softly spoken, and precise in his statements – often taking uncomfortably long pauses to weigh up his replies to questions. He is certainly not a ranting demagogue. On the other hand, he is a ferocious debater.

I once caught him in action at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, at a public discussion with the then Archbishop of York, John Habgood. The latter, a quiet, rather restrained cleric had trained as a physiologist before finding God and was speaking in favour of the motion that science and religion were compatible.

Dawkins begged to disagree: science has shown that the universe is ruled by chance, not predestination, and has no room for God, an entity that should now only be spoken of “in the same way as Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy,” he argued.

One by one, Dawkins smashed down each attempt at compromise put forward by Habgood, who eventually left the stage, looking dazed and punch-drunk. “That was easy to sum up,” muttered a gloomy cleric sitting beside me. “Lions 10, Christians nil.”

For Dawkins, such performances are simply a matter of holding to one’s beliefs.

“I am most proud of The Selfish Gene, that is true, but I would also like to be remembered for standing up for sceptical rationalism, not just with respect to religion but with respect to homeopathy, astrology and all those other things.”

Indeed, this may turn out to be Dawkins’ real legacy. His last book, The God Delusion, published in 2006, says little about evolution and a great deal about organised religion, including a description of God as “a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochist, capriciously malevolent bully”.

These words do not go down well in certain quarters, as you can imagine. Yet The God Delusion has since sold two million copies and has been translated into more than 30 languages. This was a book the world has been waiting for, it would seem.

“My dream is that it may help people to ‘come out’ as atheists,” adds Dawkins.

On other issues of belief, Dawkins is more circumspect. He refuses to take on climate change deniers, although he remains extremely worried about global warming and highly critical of the controversial TV program The Great Global Warming Swindle, which screened last year and outraged scientists.

The documentary, since condemned by broadcasting authorities in Britain, claimed that most evidence supporting climate change had been falsified.

“It was a scandal,” Dawkins agrees. “However, I am not that well versed on climate science and don’t feel qualified to take on the deniers. I am well versed in evolution, however, and that is why I am happy to take on creationists.”

As to the fate of our species, Dawkins is unhesitatingly pessimistic. Humanity has considerable technological expertise, but equally it is our own activities that now threaten our planet with environmental mayhem.

“I can envisage a scenario in which small pockets of humanity survive in pods where technology protects us from the dreadful effects we have let loose,” he adds.

It sounds fairly apocalyptic. So I ask if he has read Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Road – soon to be released as a film starring Viggo Mortensen – which outlines an equally dreadful future for our planet before adding, for clarification, that McCarthy also wrote the novel on which the Oscar-winning film No Country for Old Men is based.

Dawkins brightens. “Ah, Yeats,” he smiles and finishes the line: “That is no country for old men. The young| In one another’s arms, birds in the trees…”

It’s not the reaction I’d anticipated, but I was certainly impressed. Dawkins turns out to be a fan not just of the poems of W.B. Yeats, but of A.E. Housman, and of the music of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Schubert and Beethoven.

There are times when he seems the quintessential English academic – well versed but a bit out of touch – who loves his poetry and classical music.

And then you have to remember his TV series, his entries on Facebook, his own website, the videos of him on YouTube, and his recent cameo on Doctor Who in which he played himself, a guest of executive producer Russell T. Davies who praises Dawkins for bringing “atheism proudly out of the closet”.

The joke behind this appearance was a particularly neat one, of course, because Dawkins is married to Lalla Ward, the actress who played Romana, a Doctor Who assistant in the 1970s.

Given such credentials, Dawkins’ appearance on Richard & Judy seems a little less odd, and indeed, once our interview is finished, he goes on to make another bravura performance.

As Jodie Marsh finishes describing her breast implants and before Des Lynam gets into his sporting reminiscences, Dawkins outlines – to the delight of his hosts – the joys of evolution. And, when you think about it, perhaps a few more scientists should be prepared to argue their causes this way.

Robin McKie is science editor of Britain’s The Observer newspaper, and a contributing editor of Cosmos.

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